Ellie Nesler

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Ellie Nesler in California

by Thomas L. Libb

Grabbing her sister’s .25-caliber pistol in a Tuolumne County courtroom on April 2, 1993, Ellie Nesler shot and killed Daniel Driver, the camp counselor accused of sodomizing her six-year-old son. “I may not be God,” she reportedly said, “but I tell you what, I’m the closest damn thing to it.”

Driver had a 1983 felony conviction for molestation in Santa Clara County, but he served only five months behind bars. At his preliminary hearing in Jamestown on the Tuolumne County charges, Driver was said to have enraged Nesler by smirking at her son.

For a short time, the public was galvanized by “the heroine of the Mother Lode,” a hard-living gold miner’s daughter whose actions seemed a righteous response to frustration with the slow pace and sometimes porous nature of the justice system. The story was even turned into a made-for-cable movie titled Judgment Day: The Ellie Nesler Story, directed by Stephen Tolkin in 1999.

But soon after the case spurred national debate as to whether she was a folk-hero vigilante or a misguided miscreant, news outlets reported that Nesler had been on methamphetamine at the time of the shooting and had a criminal record for auto theft.

This dampened the enthusiasm of many, but not all, of her public supporters. Reportedly, one Jamestown bartender said Nesler’s biggest mistake was her aim: “She should have shot him lower” – between the legs.

Nesler’s renowned attorney, J. Tony Serra, raised a temporary insanity defense, but Nesler was nevertheless convicted of voluntary manslaughter. Her ten-year sentence was later overturned by the California Supreme Court due to jury misconduct; with a new plea bargain she was released after three years.

She died in December 2008 at age 56. Noting that the case helped bring about stronger penalties nationwide for molestation, her sister Jan was asked if Ellie was a hero and replied, “You betcha.”

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